11th Global Conference: Abstract

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Killing Parents: How Gender Turns Some into Monsters and Others into Victims

Mothers who commit infanticide have been a constant throughout human history. Research suggests that in the absence of reliable contraceptives, a pre-modern woman might have deliberately limited the number of children by killing unwanted offspring. Variable has only been society’s perception and evaluation of this phenomenon.

When fathers or mothers kill their own children society struggles to understand how such a tragedy could happen and what drove the parents to do such an unimaginable thing. The most prominent case to date is Magda Goebbels, who poisoned all of her six children.

The modern infanticide often manifests in extended suicide, meaning that the parent kills the children and then themselves. There have also been cases where mothers kill their children and continue to live their lives as if nothing happened. As much as this seems to be a private issue, closer examination of the phenomenon shows that there are manifold causes and consequences reaching far into the social sphere.

Interestingly, killing mothers are typically portrayed as monsters in the media while killing fathers often experience a different kind of public treatment. The sociological perspective shows that the making of monsters is a historically, socially, and culturally fluctuating process which can be shaped and molded by structural categories such as gender.

The presentation will focus on the changing perception and evaluation of mothers who kill their children. This process is strongly connected to the social construction of motherhood, an artifact which is imbedded in complex social institutions. Furthermore, changes in the conception of fatherhood illustrate why modern killing fathers are often portrayed as victims of society or societal circumstances. Case studies will illustrate the differences and provide the background for theoretical discussion and further exploration of the process by which gendered monsters are made and re-made in modern society.

Keywords: infanticide, extended suicide, gender, monster, social construction